When I was a kid in the 1970s, my itinerant parents, who moved us eleven times in ten years, would occasionally send my brothers and me to local “afterschool” programs or “summer” programs so that we might meet other kids prior to starting our next new school. Inevitably, these programs were sponsored by Christian churches. Along with chorus and drama arts/crafts and sports, the programs mixed in a type of Sunday school-level theology, often taught to us through the kinds of feel-good modern hymns that emphasized that Jesus was a great guy.
Jesus loves the little children
All little children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
We are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
Or so the songs told us. And in my house, my dad’s brand of nominal Christianity was to carry around laminated business card-sized copies of the Sermon on the Mount. He kept that next to similar laminated copies of other motivational texts, including Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” some quotations from the Tao Te Ching, and photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi. That, for me, was Christianity: an ecumenical religion based on the principle of loving one’s neighbor and living in peace.
But, as I have written before, and which Full Frontal with Samantha Bee did a brilliant job of explicating Monday, that vision of Christianity is eons and worlds away from the battlefront put forward by the Christian Right. The toxic blend of right-wing politics and hate-all-sinners Christianity began its infiltration of Republican politics behind the “Gipper” skull of Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s. That brand of Christianity has nothing in common with the radical promise of post-Vatican II liberation theology priests or the drummajors-for-justice nonviolence of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
I once saw a graffito that said, “Jesus was not a hippie,” and anyone born after 1970 might wonder if anyone ever thought he was. Then again, the rise of the hate-all-sinners political philosophy of the religious right can be seen as the tantrum-like response to the vision of Christ as radical advocate for the poor and disenfranchised.
It’s not surprising that the “love everyone” Jesus is more the historical anomaly than “batsh*t crazy” Jesus whose followers freak-out and terrorize women walking into public restrooms or scream at strangers that they’re going to burn in hellfire. Few in the media (other than Full Frontal) seem to be reporting on the historical context in which to view the political panem et circenses (bread and circuses) being offered as communion wafers by religious hucksters and the politicians who throw those hucksters’ voices.
But to understand some of the history of this type of intolerance wrapped in the cloak of righteousness, it’s necessary to step back in time. Say, for example, back to fifteenth century Italy. In the 1420s, the religious showman who commanded crowds of thousands of believers was a preacher named Bernardino da Siena (1380-1444). (Siena was the place he was from, not his last name. Just as “Da Vinci” is not, as every six year-old should know, Leonardo’s last name.) Bernardino belonged to the Order of Friars Minor, known in the vernacular as the “Franciscans,” an order founded by St. Francis of Assisi, whose emphasis on poverty as a Godly virtue had presented a challenge to the Church during his lifetime. By the early fifteenth century, the Franciscans had evolved into various sects within the order, and Bernardino belonged to the “Observants,” meaning they were deadly serious about that whole austere lifestyle stuff.
Bernardino had lived a quiet life until sometime around 1420, when he felt a great calling to go out and explain to the masses how they could save their souls. Anthropologists and French feminist theorists have insightful ideas about notions of “pollution,” (the kind that happens to bodies, not the environmental kind), but suffice it to say, Bernardino was obsessed with the idea that the cities of the various Italian city-states (Italy as a nation didn’t exist until the 1870s) were polluted with sin. And God was pissed. Really pissed. “So-shall-I-destroy-the-cities-” kind of pissed.
Witness accounts of Bernardino attest to thousands of townspeople gathering in front of the church to hear the preacher who never failed to terrify the masses. In Florence, Bernardino spoke in front of Santa Croce, the church dedicated to the Holy Cross (and the modern day location of “calcio historico,” a sport that makes Ultimate Fighting look like child’s play.) Florence had a “reputation” (in the time period commonly referred to as the Renaissance) as being full of men who liked to have sex with other men. It was also a city that had a large, successful mercantile class, and the engine that drove merchant trading was the borrowing of money—at interest. Since the Church had interpreted scriptures to say that charging interest was a sin, Florence used the local Jewish community’s bankers as their loan-merchants. (Until the Medici figured out how to manipulate lending money at interest and made a fortune that makes Donald Trump’s look like the pennies that a teeny-tiny baby’s hands might grasp.)
Florence had already been the locus of a lot of class-driven conflict. A rising merchant class jostled with nobles, and the nobles had been jostling with each other for centuries, engaging in vendettas and other criminal activities that constantly destabilized the government of the city. In the early Renaissance, from the 1100s forward, one way that noble families asserted their puissance over the city was to build tall towers. At which point, the rival family would build taller towers. It doesn’t require a Sigmund Freud to interpret the significance of building tall, upward-pointing towers as a means of asserting that yours was the most powerful family. (Think: Trump Tower.) City officials grew tired of the whole affair. Many of the towers in Florence are now gone, but to see what such a city might have looked like, check out San Gimignano.
The merchants had money. They wanted to display that money, and one of the ways that they did so was through conspicuous consumption. A rich merchant might drape himself in furs and jewels, and adorn his wife like a trophy (except, no earrings) in order to show the cash-poor nobles that while money couldn’t buy titles, it sure could buy cool stuff. The opulence created more social conflict, and in cities like Florence, so-called “sumptuary” laws came to pass, which mandated just who was allowed to wear fur, certain jewels, and all those bespoke clothes that incited envy and resentment. The good news was that the Church was happy to have all those people with money spend their money appropriately—by building chapels and churches and other wonders and becoming patrons to local artists who were asked to paint these stunning tributes to Jesus and the saints (who bore uncanny resemblances to the patrons who had supplied the commission). The creative period of history referred to as the Renaissance was fueled by people who had money to spend, few legal channels through which to spend it, and who channeled their money into honoring God. Male writers, painters, sculptors and other artists flocked to cities like Florence to try to find a rich patron or to enter competitions to create the most beautiful things ever.
Into this teeming, politically unstable, creative hodge-podge that was Florence (and several other cities) came Bernardino. And he did not like what he saw. In fact, what he saw reminded him of the types of things that Old Testament Jehovah punished with destruction and women being raped for good measure. (See: Sodom and Gomorrah) In fact, Bernardino was convinced that the people he saw in Florence were not going to get a chance to end up in hell. God was going to kill them any day for tolerating the creative chaos that was Florence. His favorite form of threatening them was to preach from the OT Book of Micah (which on more than one occasion he confused with the Book of Malachi, but those mistakes were for historians to argue over later). And in Chapter 5 of the Book of Micah, he told the crowd, God had promised:
And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord, that I will cut off thy horses out of the midst of thee, and I will destroy thy chariots:
11 And I will cut off the cities of thy land, and throw down all thy strong holds:
12 And I will cut off witchcrafts out of thine hand; and thou shalt have no more soothsayers:
13 Thy graven images also will I cut off, and thy standing images out of the midst of thee; and thou shalt no more worship the work of thine hands.
14 And I will pluck up thy groves out of the midst of thee: so will I destroy thy cities.
15 And I will execute vengeance in anger and fury upon the heathen, such as they have not heard.
Bernardino would stir up his audience by cherry-picking various Old Testament verses where God had gotten annoyed and destroyed entire cities for their tolerance of various sins, and then point to activities in his audience’s neighborhoods that were sure to incur God’s wrath. In Florence, Bernardino would encourage his audience to spit (sputa) when he mentioned particular sins (let’s hope this practice remains historical). It’s not hard to imagine thousands of people collectively spitting their way through one of Bernardino’s interminable speeches. He raged against among others: sodomites; women; Jews; fortune tellers; and streghe, witches. (A quick historical note: witches never existed. They were figments of preachers’ imaginations, but that didn’t mean real people didn’t suffer as a result. See the summary of Matteuccia di Francesco’s trial and execution for an example of a direct connection between Bernardino’s sermons of 1427 and the persecution of a village woman for sorcery.)
Another of Bernardino’s tools were the so-called “bonfire of the vanities,” for which Savonarola would become famous a few decades later, where crowd members were urged to go home and find the objects in their home that were examples of vanity. Beautiful things. Artwork. Jewelry. Manuscripts. Books. (It’s not hard to imagine Jesus weeping from the smoke.) But this frenzy that Bernardino drove the crowd into was for their own good, he told them. They had to rid themselves of the pollution that was killing Florence. And it wasn’t enough to just get rid of vain objects. It was also necessary to rid the city of those individuals within it who were likely to call down God’s wrath. While “live and let live” sounds great in principle, for the frightened citizens of Florence, better not to “let live” if doing so meant that everyone was doomed.
Salvation, which was supposed to be an individual concern, became a collective concern if there was to be collective punishment from an angry God. Better to live a life of prayer, simplicity, and right living, rather than risk dying in an inferno of the primitive napalm known as fire and brimstone.
Stepping back into modern times: For those who are frightened by transition (remember that list of the ten most stressful events you can go through?), the idea that at the end of chaotic life there is an afterlife of harmony and peace has led many to focus more on the afterlife rather than the quotidian mess that is life.
The American religious right, which at the moment appears to have lost its collective mind over a fantasy-based threat to children in bathrooms, is manifesting just another example of collective punishment paranoia. That paranoia lives below the surface for many individuals in our culture. If one adds the creation of a threat along with a shit-stirring demagogue to emphasize just how threatening it is, the collective shit storm that we are now witnessing seems as easy to predict as the sunrise. It doesn’t take special powers of prescience to anticipate it. It just takes observation of long-time patterns and predicting that, despite the advances of technology, primeval human fears about death never go away.